Leaving Savannah in the Night: Hardee’s evacuation

On January 3, 1861, pro-secessionist forces seized Fort Pulaski.  Events propelled Savannah into the the forefront of the secession crisis.  From the start, the Savannah was one of the Confederacy’s leading cities.  And from the start, Confederate leaders prepared to defend the city.  Fortifications ringed the city and warded off Federal threats, even after the fall of Fort Pulaski.  Savannah became both depot and bastion.  Now, just short of four years after the ball started rolling, the Confederate army was leaving the city in the middle of the night.

On December 19, Lieutenant-General William Hardee issued a circular starting with:

The troops in and around Savannah will be transferred to-night to the left bank of the Savannah River, and will proceed thence to Hardeeville.

The remainder of the thirteen part circular detailed specific actions and movement times for subordinate units. At dark the field artillery would “be withdrawn by hand,” limbered when in the rear, and drawn over the river.  Major-General Ambrose Wright’s division, furthest south on the outer lines, would withdraw at 8 p.m.  Garrisons in the coastal fortifications, east and south of the city, would retired starting at 9 p.m.  Major-General Lafayette McLaws’ men would retire at 10 p.m.  Then Major-General G.W. Smith’s division at 11 p.m. Skirmishers would maintain a presence on the line, but start retiring at 10:30, in the same order as the divisions.

Anything of military value that could be move would be transported over the river.  And what could not be moved, would be destroyed.  Heavy guns were to be spiked. But “The ammunition will be destroyed by throwing it into the river, or otherwise, and not by blowing it up.”  For this escape plan to work, Hardee did not need an explosion to tip off  the Federals.  Chief engineer Colonel John Clarke would destroy the bridge when the last skirmishers had crossed.

But, as mentioned in yesterday’s post, Hardee put the execution time off for a day due to delays setting the pontoon bridge over the river.  So on the 20th, the order of execution went out:

The movement ordered in confidential circular from these headquarters dated December 19, 1864, will be executed to-night at the hours as originally arranged, and not as subsequently amended–that is, Wright’s division will move at 8 o’clock, McLaws’ division at 10 o’clock, and Smith’s division at 11 o’clock, and Wright’s skirmishers will be withdrawn at 10.30 o’clock, McLaws’ skirmishers at 12.30 o’clock, and Smith’s skirmishers at 1 o’clock.

So other than a twenty-four hour delay, the circular stood in effect.

The Confederate artillerists, faced with hauling ammunition to the river for disposal, opted instead to fire off as much as allowed.  Brigadier-General John Geary did notice all this activity:

The usual artillery firing was kept up by the enemy during the day and night. During the night I heard the movement of troops and wagons across the pontoon bridge before mentioned, and sent a report of the fact to the general commanding corps. Leaving one of my staff to watch the sounds in that direction, I notified my officer of the day and brigade commanders to keep a vigilant watch upon the enemy, as they were probably evacuating.  The details on Forts 2 and 3 continued working through the night, the enemy shelling them heavily.

But, for the most part, the Federals remained in their positions only occasionally sparring with their opponents.  For the first time in the Savannah Campaign, the Confederates had stolen a march on Sherman.  But, of course, it was the closing movement of the campaign.

With the evacuation of Savannah, the Confederates had a substantial amount of supplies to either move, destroy, or to distribute.  Not all of it would be processed.  But under Hardee’s orders, fires were kept to a minimum.  There would be no repeat of the conflagration when Atlanta was abandoned.

With the evacuation of Savannah, its naval squadron would lose a base.  After assisting with the withdrawal, the vessels were to get out as best possible.  The ironclad CSS Savannah was to make for open sea by way of St. Augustine Creek.  The gunboats CSS Isondiga and CSS Firefly would attempt passage up river to link up with the other elements of the Confederate fleet near Sister’s Ferry.  Since the CSS Georgia could not move, her crew would scuttle the ironclad battery and escape to South Carolina. The CSS Water Witch, which had been captured earlier in the year, would be burned to prevent re-capture.

In the event, none of the vessels would make it out of Savannah. The Isondiga ran aground upstream from the pontoon bridge and was burned to prevent capture.  Throughout the night the Firefly assisted with the withdrawal and lay at Screven’s Ferry dock.   Unable to clear the torpedoes from any channels to the sea, the Savannah also remained in the vicinity of Screven’s Ferry.  There, the ironclad could at least prevent the Federals from repairing the pontoon bridge and making a pursuit over the river.

Not taken into account with Hardee’s orders were the more than 20,000 civilians in Savannah.  Very few received passes over the bridge to escape.  With the last of the Confederate army withdrawn in the early morning hours, the city found itself at the mercy of the Federal forces which had destroyed Atlanta, Milledgeville, and other cities across Georgia.  December 21 would bring a reckoning of one sort or the other.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 279, 967, 972.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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